The gigantic department store chain culture that has all but eliminated small specialty businesses has not left education untouched. The small, proprietary specialty shops of an older era were either put out of business or were bought and merged into the big business supermarkets and super department stores of today - where the wide array of commodities are standardized and available under one roof. Similarly, the wide array of course offerings at colleges and universities have also become, to some degree, standardized.
A number of years ago, Colorado, like many other states, passed legislation that allowed any student from a Colorado community college graduating with an A.A. or A.S. degree to automatically transfer to the Colorado college or university of his or her choice with junior status. The rationale was that the courses are virtually the same at every college for freshman- and sophomore-level classes, and Colorado taxpayers should not have to foot the bill when a four-year institution capriciously and arbitrarily doesn't accept a student's transfer credits from another public institution of higher education within the state of Colorado.
But are these courses really the same?
What happens when universities value the bottom line more than the quality of the curriculum and the quality of the student experience? Similar to the department store approach of protecting the bottom line by selling in large volume and outsourcing the manufacturing of products, some institutions are known for large volume and outsourcing. At a large university, for example, freshman and sophomore classes of 300 to 400 students a class is not uncommon. Outsourcing instruction to teaching assistants is typical.
Community colleges generally have not been caught up in the competitive bottom-line mentality because, without graduate programs, they cannot outsource to teaching assistants. And by the nature of the community colleges (at least in Colorado), large class sizes of 300 to 400 students run contrary to the community college role and mission of providing more personal attention. Although a course may look the same on paper, there may be a great deal of difference in the student experience if the course is taken at a community college or if it is taken at a large university. And bigger doesn't always mean better, nor does it mean it is less expensive.
Education is not a super department store of classes, and the measure of success should not be on profit margins and the marketability of courses and programs. The bottom line in education is measured by how we change lives.
Kerry Hart is dean of the Colorado Mountain College Alpine Campus in Steamboat Springs.